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Turning Membership Upside-down: An Experiment from a Nonprofit News Site

This post was originally published here (Nonprofit Quarterly)

Journalists were once taught to let the stories speak for themselves, but when it comes to professional identity, that may be a luxury that nonprofit journalists and news sites cannot afford.

“You have to shout from the rooftops what a good job you are doing,” says Steve Beatty, editor of The Lens, a nonprofit public-interest newsroom, in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Correspondent Derron Lee tells the story of the changing nature of community journalism through one independent news operation that started as a for-profit venture before making the transition to a nonprofit. The words “now a nonprofit” now appear on the front page of The Frontier, a local news site founded in 2015 by Robert Lorton.

But what does the ideal revenue model for a community-oriented, public interest newsroom look like? That is very much still in development, with a lot of small and large experiments going on. The Knight Foundation, a supporter of business model development in the field of nonprofit journalism, recently highlighted the approach of De Correspondent, a Netherlands-based news organization based on membership. De Correspondent has more than 56,000 members who pay about $63 a year to support its 21 full-time correspondents and 75 freelancers. It is exploring a launch in the U.S.

The big difference in De Correspondent’s approach, writes Jay Rosen, is that the organization is intentionally “optimized for trust.” Practically speaking, that looks like no ads, no targeting, freedom from the 24-hour news cycle, and “writers at the center with room to run.” For the writers, in exchange for writing freedom, correspondents are required to engage in rich interaction with readers.

However, Rosen admits there is still much to learn whether or not lessons can be applied to American journalism. The Membership Puzzle Project is part of the effort to figure out if lessons from De Correspondent can be applied in the U.S. The New York University project will focus on innovations in audience engagement intended to help journalists generate enough revenue to support themselves. There are many differences between the Dutch market and U.S. market—size, for one thing: 17 million people vs. 325 million.

There appears to be related but different DNA in the potential appeal of the De Correspondent approach compared with, for example, public broadcasting and common nonprofit revenue models. The difference starts with basic definitions. Redefining what “membership” means will be critical to whether the De Correspondent concept succeeds. Many nonprofits have what they call “members,” though what defines a member is a very low bar in regard to involvement. Nonprofits also use a variety of fundraising tools, often without the introspection required to meet the needs of their evolving customers/donors.

For many nonprofits, the definition of a “member” is someone who completes a small gift. These members are often later asked to give more for recurrent special projects, “like” the group on social media platforms, and renew annually. In the case of advocacy groups, contact with public officials or speaking out on timely issues is requested. Sometimes new or renewing members get something like a tote bag or address labels as encouragement. As contributions grow in size and in the number of zeroes in the gift, the type of benefits do too, often trending toward offers of unique experiences and special, insider access rather than “free stuff.”

Redefining the meaning of word “member” might mean letting supporters define what they find most interesting and valuable. Involvement is critical to the creation of trust, a foundation for “optimizing every part of the operation for trust.”

Will “diversified” funding be the answer? It’s interesting to note that many of the nonprofits that grew the most in recent decades did it by focusing on specific forms of revenue, not through diversification. For news organizations, adopting a mantra of diversified funding, which is embraced by many nonprofits, may do more to stymie growth or increase fundraising costs without accomplishing bigger objectives.

There may be much more to learn from nonprofit fundraising, but less from use of specific tools of fundraising (e.g., special events, direct mail, campaigns, etc.) than the experiences of relationship building, providing meaningful experiences, and high quality, personalized experiences. While many nonprofits brag about their engagement and involvement with their donors, there are far fewer truly successful ones from the point of view of donors than one might wish to imagine. The De Correspondent approach appears to intentionally turn that relationship upside down. It has promise.

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